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|F O R E I G N C O R R E S P O
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R T H E D E F E N S
IN AN APACHE
AS AN ARMY TOP GUN, APACHE LONGBOW HELICOPTER PILOT NICHOLAS DIMONA GAVE HIS WHOLE BEING TO FLYING. HE DIED ON A NIGHT TRAINING FLIGHT HE DIDN'T HAVE TO MAKE.
Series: DANGEROUS SKIES
The Army and Coast Guard are struggling with safety concerns over their helicopter workhorses. The Army's Apache and the Guard's Dolphin have malfunctioned, jeopardized missions and, in the Apache's case, claimed lives.
It might be
hard to picture a 32-year-old chief warrant
officer - a decorated combat veteran from the war in
But that's how his friends and fellow pilots describe Nicholas P. DiMona II.
Still, to get into the Army's warrant officer school, DiMona had to pass a battery of physical, mental and knowledge tests. And he had to prove that his life, to that point, embodied what it took to be an aviator and leader.
To weed out the undesirables, Army officers had to "assess as a minimum the applicant's military bearing, leadership potential, personal history, training, experience, and motivation," according to the school's training guide.
months they endured such scrutiny, even off post,
"Civilian clothing should be in good taste," the manual continues. "Warrant Officers will not authorize clothing such as tee shirts characterized with abusive inscriptions or drawings for wear. Remember that officers set the example; dress and act appropriately."
After those basics, they learned instrumentation flight. They learned to fly a TH-67 helicopter before graduating to a higher class vehicle, like a Kiowa.
Then, they moved on to the helicopter they would serve in.
In DiMona's case, that was the Apache Longbow, a sophisticated attack aircraft which required as much as two months of additional training.
"The Apache program is the hardest school in Army aviation," said 1st Lt. Brett- Lewis, DiMona's former platoon leader.
As DiMona's career moved upward, he was expected to be a master of all aviation trades.
Those expectations were fine with DiMona. Meeting them meant he could fly.
As his mother, Elma, put it:
"He lived his dream. Not many people know if they even have a dream."
In the end, his dream claimed his life.
The Army has not released what caused DiMona's Apache to go down, killing him and his fellow pilot. But the crash was part of two disturbing trends - one of a dozen Apache crashes during the first half of this year and part of a sharp increase in the aircraft's mishap rate this year.
DiMona's crash stand out even more was this:
according to the Army, these were this year's only fatalities and the
Longbow deaths at
REACHING FOR THE SKY - EARLY
Elma DiMona can't remember a time when her son didn't want to fly.
"That's all he talked about," she said
There's a picture of Nicholas, about 3-years-old, embracing a blow-up toy plane nearly as big as he is. His grin fills the frame.
Not that he was completely single-minded.
"He really didn't get into any serious trouble," his mother recalled. "He was just - a boy."
He loved skateboarding, biking and shooting with his dad. He even made his own bullets.
also liked football. He became a fan of the
New York Giants, despite his suburban
Nicholas covered his walls with posters of models or Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers. There's even a picture of him as a boy, standing next to an Eagles cheerleader. Team loyalty was one thing, a pretty girl, apparently, another.
But his dreams were always in his sights.
He collected every Star Wars figure. Top Gun was more than a movie - it was a life to strive for.
"Tom Cruise was his friend," his mother recalled.
But as starry-eyed as Nicholas DiMona could be about flying, he was, even as a high schooler, already mapping out his life. If nothing else, he was always a careful and practical guy.
He thought the other military services might fail to live up to any promises they made in recruiting him.
He trusted the Army. After all, his father and his grandfather had both been soldiers.
His mother grudgingly gave it.
"I didn't want him to go in," Elma said. "But I knew that college would not be for him. He was a very smart boy, but he just couldn't sit that long. He needed to be moving, to be doing something."
They had a
going away party
The invitations were red, white and blue and featured Uncle Sam on the front.
SUCCEEDING - HIS WAY
DiMona was good with his hands, and wound up working as a technician - as well as doing some special forces work.
He considered the Army his second family, and had two tattoos etched on his right leg - "My Country" and "My Heritage" - one with the American flag, the other with the Italian one.
He liked his work in special forces and saw in it a future that might be as fulfilling as life in a cockpit. He wanted to join the military police.
But he was good at his technician's job, and the Army balked at moving him out of it.
follower, or one to just settle, DiMona left the
service after five years and became a contractor back home in
There, Nicholas finally met his match in Melissa. She was everything he needed.
"She's strong-willed and independent - on his level," Elma said.
The couple got married and agreed DiMona should return to the Army. At Melissa's urging, he decided to pursue his old dream of flight.
This time, he'd make sure he got what he wanted - to fly helicopters.
He rose to the rank of chief warrant officer 2, proving he had what it took not only to enter and complete flight school - and fly the Longbow - but also to the other thing the Army insisted he be, a leader, in and out of combat, for two years under the watchful eyes of his commanders and peers.
"He had already worked hard to get there," his mother said. "He did it from the ground up. Everything had to be just right for him. The way he dressed. The way he acted. The way he did anything. Meticulous."
1st Lt. Lewis, his former platoon leader, said, "Ninety-nine percent of the time he'd be right. He didn't sugar-coat things. I told Nick, 'I wish we had more people like you in the Army.'"
during Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a pilot in
He and the other pilots he fought with received medals and commendations for flying medevac escorts and other missions.
Lewis felt DiMona was a future chief warrant officer 5, the highest pilot rank for a warrant officer, the one that means you're true Army aviation royalty. Like his hero Tom Cruise, he was pretty much the local Apache fleet's top gun.
Other Army officers tagged him as a future commissioned officer, but that would mean he'd have to give up most of his flying.
And there was no way he'd do that, his mother said.
"YOUR BABY BOY"
This decorated war veteran was never so much the warrior that he wouldn't hug and kiss his mother.
And DiMona was never too old a son that, when talking to his mother, he referred to himself as anything but "your baby boy."
On the page titled "One of my happiest memories of you is," DiMona finished with, "The way you looked at me during our dance on my wedding day. Your look was one of pure, unconditional love. Not until my own children did I think or could imagine such a love could exist."
Some of the pages remain blank.
"He said he would finish them when he got back," she said. As she spoke, the book sat closed on her lap.
She wiped a tear from her cheek.
"He didn't get a chance. But that's OK. We lived it."
Indeed they did.
DiMona became a father, husband and son devoted to his life, family and country.
Whenever DiMona flew, he wore the Blue Angels watch his mother bought him when he graduated flight school. He also carried an embroidered cross made by his grandmother.
"That's what holds a family together," his mother said. "Faith."
DiMona had something else in the Apache cockpit: a small, brown, worn leather Bible his grandfather, Dominick Persiani, carried during World War II.
book's covers, Persiani had etched in the names
of places he'd stayed or served in
The service lives of grandfather and grandson had crisscrossed at home and abroad.
"That's where my son died."
LOOKING AT THE SAME MOON
the cross, the flag, even the dog tags DiMona
wore the day he died now have a home on a special shelf in his mother's
The shelf serves as a small shrine to her son - and all that he stood - and flew - for. His Blue Angels watch is there, too, though the band was broken in the crash. "A piece is missing," she said.
She last saw him on Father's Day with Melissa and their children, 5-year-old Nicholas III and his sister, Gianna, two years younger.
They were all
"He looked up at me and smiled," she said.
Her baby boy.
"It was my last wonderful memory of him."
On that day,
the DiMonas had nothing but high hopes for the
future. Nicholas had survived the war and was about to go on assignment
were preparing for the move. They had just
settled on the sale of their home at
It was a training flight, one that DiMona didn't really have to make.
Most senior pilots, at that stage, a week or so before a new assignment, would stay on the ground.
He took a younger pilot - Warrant Officer 1 William Loffer- - up that Tuesday night to run the junior officer through the paces, teach him a thing or two, pass the mantle, the old top gun to the new one.
The Army values mentoring highly.
"Mentorship is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly," the ever-present warrant officer training guide says. "As a mentor you may need to set and enforce tough standards, show how to excel in duty performance."
DiMona was doing all those things that night.
"The purpose of that flight was to help Bill Loffer become more proficient," said 1st Lt. Lewis, DiMona's former platoon leader.
DiMona and Loffer were practicing some very tricky flying that night - using infrared sensors to track their path as they flew low over the ground and trees.
Putting an Apache through these sort of paces can tax even the most experienced pilots.
Even the Army's top guns.
But such difficult training is necessary. The Apache's night-time ability to come in low and fast is one of the very attributes the Army finds so valuable.
"We need to train like we fight," Lewis said.
The Army won't publicly discuss its investigation into the accident.
Right now, though, the DiMonas are less concerned with what caused the crash than they are in moving beyond it to survive as a family.
Elma has her pictures, mementos - and memories.
the children are back in
The pilot's son wants to follow his dad into the Army and the cockpit.
"He wanted to fly helicopters with his father," Elma DiMona said.
Now, the younger DiMona no longer has that chance.
He might find
solace, though, in a small booklet his
grandmother wrote and illustrated just before his father left for
The booklet was her way of tying her family together even when they were far apart.
"Whenever you look at the moon," the passage says, "I'll be looking at the same moon."
WHAT MAKES AN AVIATION WARRANT OFFICERSO SPECIAL?
A fundamental difference stems from the combat leader role. Aviation warrant officers not only command approximately 80 percent of the aircraft cockpits, but lead the majority of flights. This combat leadership role does not exist for technical services officers.
What are the training requirements?
The basic course consists of initial entry rotary wing "flight school" (32 weeks), followed by the Aviation Warrant Officer Professional Development Course (four weeks, two days). All rated warrant officers receive Army aviator wings after completing the course. Then they attend a six-to-14 week advanced Aircraft Qualification Course.
CLIMBING THE LADDER: WHAT DID NICHOLAS DIMONA NEED TO BECOME A CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2?
As a CW2, a pilot will continue to expand his knowledge and skills through diverse worldwide assignments and additional duties. Rated aviation warrant officers must develop leadership skills and increase the scope of their responsibility by attaining pilot-in-command status. An aviation warrant officer can expect to be promoted to CW2 in 24 months.
WHAT ADDITIONAL TRAINING IS NEEDED TO FLY THE AH-64D APACHE LONGBOW?
Aviators qualified only in the AH-64A must complete a six-week supplemental qualification course before being considered AH-64D qualified. Full 14-week training began in fiscal year 2000 to qualify aviators who are not "A-model" rated.
WHAT ELSE IS EXPECTED?
Source: Army's Warrant Officer Flight Training Guide.